“Identity and Idolatry” by Richard Lints

Richard Lints. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015, 186 pp., $17.60 (softcover).

*I would like to express my gratitude to IVP for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


In the newest addition to the NSBT series (New Studies in Biblical Theology) Richard Lints explores the relationship between identity and idolatry, with special regard to relevancy of the topic for modern Christians and how it actually affect how Christians think. He is currently the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Hamilton Campus at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also the Andrew Muth distinguished Professor in Theology. His focuses in philosophy and theology, apologetics, and identity, all shine through his work. Identity and Idolatry utilizes these areas to show how and why imago Dei is an absolutely formative element to establishing and maintaining Christian identity, and even humanity.

He begins by providing an introduction to identity dynamics outside of a philosophical anthropological context and indicates a fundamental key that God is the triune, communal creator who is apart and unique from creation. Following he illustrates the constraints and conceptual resources viable for understanding imago Dei. He provides two important keys: Genesis is not metaphysically concerned but theologically concerned with the well-being of created community, and human identity involves the reflecting of the identity of God or idols. In his words, “the key question of the Scriptures is, what will images reflect? Will the image of God (humankind) image God” (42)?

Chapters Three through Five explore the Hebrew Bible and its appropriations of imago Dei and semantically related ideas. Rooted initiates his analysis of Scripture’s view of imago Dei through the “two accounts of creation in Genesis” (43). In essence, he argues that Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 is frame for the narrator, intricacies indicate liturgical value, and Genesis 1 is presented as God’s temple-building activity. These three elements frame his following discussion about what imago Dei actually is.  Imago Dei is, for Lints, most succinctly and clearly understood as a reflective and relational to Yahweh which finds parallels in ancient Near Eastern image reflections and becomes negated through the remainder of the Bible, after Genesis 1-11. Chapter Five then focuses on how the Hebrew Bible turns upside down the imago Dei, a rhetoric often accomplished by pairing imago Dei with idolatry and the prophetic stances. In short, the paramount inversion is the event of the worshipping of the golden calf at Sinai, an incident in stark contrast to God’s diatribe for relational fidelity. The relational fidelity, in which prophets claim ancient Israelite identity should be found, is the primary framework for idolatry in prophetic literature, indicative that idolatry is, in fact, an inversion of imago Dei and marring of human identity.

Shifting gears to New Testament literature, Lints establishes the New Testament historical context for imago Dei and attempts to show consistent appropriations of the relation between image, idolatry, and Jesus as an inversion of the original imago Dei, with Jesus as the perfect imago Dei. The perfect image of Jesus, according to Lints, is rooted in the a triune God. Having determined the biblical theology of imago Dei, Lints delves into modern philosophy with an apologetic tone. In his brief coverage of the philosophies of Kant to Nietzsche, he expresses the development towards strong atheism that rids of God and results in a meaningless life. This development implicitly suggests the inability of modern philosophical discourse to answer pertinent questions of life and identity as it progressively established a world with no logic of the divine. Finally, Chapter Eight attempts to guide the reader to understand the purpose and significance of his whole discussion about identity and idolatry by focusing on how life’s business prevents remembrance of the importance, there is no transcendent source of reality, and an eternal, overarching story of God’s redemptive purpose must be within the theological vision of Christians. To summarize the book’s focus in one statement, Christian, and even human, identity must be shaped by God’s perspective of man as his reflection through the biblical narrative, and that narrative ought be the center of Christian communities.

As the most recent addition to the NSBT series, I expected more analysis of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Unfortunately the textual analysis, while present, was very much driven by philosophical discourse. While philosophy is essential to a well-constructed theology and does have much value, his understanding of imago Dei was seemingly shaped by his philosophizing rather than textual analysis of the Bible. Were Identity and Idolatry a philosophical-theological discussion of Scripture, it should have been specified. Yet, as a part of the NSBT series, it is almost so focused on philosophy that his conclusions seem to be defined not by the text itself, but by the philosophical assumptions.

Second, Lints use of the Bible seems to use the text for pre-supposed theological stances rather allowing texts speak their own theologies as rooted in the historical context. For example, when he engages with Deutero-Isaiah, he does not take into consideration what makes it unique from proto-Isaiah. For more reliable analysis of the biblical text, his analysis should have taken seriously the internal divisions of Isaiah and historical contexts. In doing so, he could avoid questions regarding why the entire first 39 chapters of Isaiah are not in favor on all other gods as nothing. While Proto-Isaiah with no doubt encourages worship of Yahweh alone, it is only in Deutero-Isaiah that the theme of monotheism becomes present.

Third, whether in his analysis of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or philosophy following the enlightenment, there is never clear organization. The analysis is muddled together almost with the assumption that the Bible contains a unified biblical theology. Such a claim is not honest to the text, as it assumes that each author writes to the same audiences, extent, and purposes. Rather than grouping everything together, it would have been beneficial to reflect on the meaning of each major occurrence of idolatry of identity based on its own context.

Overall, Lints discussion about identity and idolatry was not incredibly convincing. His work is too apologetic in nature and is too broad scope. As an addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology, his work should have focused on just that: biblical theology and the exegesis of biblical passages, though perhaps with nothing more than an ear to philosophy. Instead, his work focuses so much on the philosophical aspects of imago Dei that it seems to have little root in the bible itself. The majority of his arguments feel forced and do not flow naturally. And while there are little intriguing tidbits here and there, his work is not convincing and does not contribute significantly to the field of biblical theology.





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